Football’s continuing participation crisis

6 Jul

Tuesday night and the text messages become more frantic; do you know anyone – anyone at all – who can show up for a game of 5-a-side tomorrow evening? Getting players is always a challenge at this time of year when people start taking their holidays, but is there something more at play, is this scramble for players indicative of a wider trend for declining participation in the game?

Once again the Active People Survey, commissioned and published by Sport England has revealed worrying figures for football. In the latest set of stats, covering the period April 2014 to March 2015, the number of people aged 16 and over participating in the sport at least once in the last 28 days showed a continued decline with the figure now standing at 2,660,000, down from the peak of 3,150,200 for the period October 2010 to October 2011. Equally worrying is the decline in participants who are members of a club; For football this has declined from 642,300 in the Active People survey covering Oct 2007 – Oct 2008 to 481,300 for the period April 2014 – March 2015 while, over the same time period, the numbers taking part in competition have plummeted from 962,500 to 676,300.

Active People graph

The stats themselves reveal little about the causes of this decline, but there are several explanations which have been in circulation including; changing working patterns, lower disposable income, lack of good facilities, and the impact of spells of inclement weather. Even the closure of pubs has been implicated – with good reason too, as many local pubs acted as hubs for organising teams and recruiting players (Interestingly the survey also shows a sharp decline for traditional pub games such as darts, pool and skittles – the number of people playing pool at least once in the last 28 days falling dramatically between October 2006 – October 2007 and April 2014 – March 2015 from 97,900 to just 39,400).

Traditional team sports requiring a large number of players and – quite often – a degree of organisation appear to have been similarly affected by declining numbers. Participants in rugby union fell from 267,800 in the first Active People survey, spanning October 2006 to October 2007, to 248,000 for the period April 2014 to March 2015 whilst for cricket numbers fell from 380,300 to 259,200. Contrastingly, over the same period, cycling – a relatively more individual sport -has enjoyed a dramatic increase in popularity from 3,554,800 taking part at least once a month to a current 3,817,400.

AP index

The stats though leave out as much as they reveal. Importantly, for football, the survey does not differentiate between 11-a-side and other forms such as 5-a-side and Futsal. This means it is not possible to chart the relative changes in the popularity of these different forms of the game and whether, for instance, a deeper decline in 11-a-side is not potentially masked by the popularity of 5-a-side. What is clear however, is that the ongoing participation crisis is biting deep into the grass-roots level of the game. Over a quarter of a million fewer players taking part in competitive football is enough to see long-established leagues wither and even fold, in turn causing the organisational infrastructure which makes, in particular, competitive 11-a-side possible to become further diminished. This can only make the challenges of providing improved facilities, flexibility, accessibility and affordability even greater and it is these challenges which need to be met if football is to halt its decline as a mass-participation sport.

The Wessex League Twitter League – Revisited for 2015

26 Jun

Firstly thanks goes to the person running the Brockenhurst FC account for giving me the idea to re-visit the Wessex League Twitter League which I produced just over a year ago in April 2014. As I did back then I have tracked down every Wessex League club on Twitter and recorded the number of followers. All 39 current Wessex League clubs are now on Twitter including the one exception from last time, Lymington Town, whose Twitter account currently has 286 followers.

In addition to this I’ve also recorded the number of tweets made by each account in order to discover which clubs have been most active on the platform – although it needs to be borne in mind that some clubs have been on Twitter for much longer than others whilst a few may have changed from one account to another.

The one noticeable thing from last time around is that with a very small handful of exceptions the number of Twitter followers has increased across the board. This should be heartening and is, in a lot of cases I’m sure, a reflection of the work put in by those who run the accounts.

Anyway, the top three in reverse order are:

3.) Brockenhurst – 1,900 Followers

The former champions slide back in the rankings, although they do manage to retain a spot on the podium with 500 more followers than Team Solent in fourth position. Brockenhurst are also the 10th most prolific tweeters in the Wessex League having made 2,369 tweets to date.

2.) Sholing – 2,307 Followers

Of the clubs featured last year Sholing have added the most followers on Twitter with an additional 919 Twitter users receiving Sholing updates in their timeline. Since the last time I compiled the list Sholing have of course won the FA Vase at Wembley which undoubtedly provided a boost in the clubs profile, but there does need to be mention of the sheer hard work that the club appear to have put into engagement; They also top the table for most prolific tweeters having made upwards of 11,300 tweets since joining Twitter in April 2012

1.) Salisbury – 6,248 Followers

A club which has had a tumultuous few years. After being thrown out of the Conference Premier due to financial issues and effectively dissolving the re-formed club finds itself now, for the first time, in the Wessex League. Salisbury, with a population of around 40,000, has more than a handful of football fans and the kind of interest generated by the involvement of footballer-turned-pundit Steve Claridge and his long-time friend journalist Ian Ridley (40,400 and 10,400 followers respectively – with Claridge being one of the few Wessex League personalities to sport a prestigious blue tick on their profile) serves to give the club a high Twitter profile.

Wessex Premier 2015

Wessex One 2015

Top 10 tweeters 2015

top 10 increase in followers  2015

1 Salisbury 6248
2 Sholing 2307
3 Brockenhurst 1900
4 Team Solent 1400
5 AFC Portchester 1261
6 Verwood Town 1201
7 Blackfield & Langley 1137
8 Newport (IOW) 1060
9 Horndean 978
10 Alton Town 884
11 Christchurch 857
12 Andover Town 855
13 Hythe & Dibden 783
14 Bournemouth 778
15 Fareham Town 728
16 Fleet Spurs 698
17 Romsey Town 696
18 Moneyfields 630
19 Folland Sports 599
20 Cowes Sports 597
21 Amesbury Town 544
22 Tadley Calleva 533
23 New Milton Town 523
24 Ringwood Town 500
25 Downton 471
26 Hamworthy United 460
27 US Portsmouth 434
28 Totton & Eling 425
29 Bemerton Heath Harlequins 403
30 AFC Stoneham 356
31 Pewsey Vale 342
32 East Cowes Vics 339
33 Portland United 336
34 Alresford Town 321
35 Whitchurch United 295
36 Andover New Street 295
37 Laverstock & Ford 291
38 Lymington Town 286
39 Fawley 123

Greece: The impact of the Economic Crisis on Football

19 Jun

As the Greek debt crisis continues to be played out to high drama involving international leaders one question is the impact the crisis has had on football. Just a decade ago Greek football was on a high; The national side surprised many to triumph at the European Championships in 2004 while in the domestic game attendances at matches were on an upward trajectory, helped, in part, by the formation of the Super League in 2006.

The financial crisis however, appears to have erased all traces of this progress. Unofficial figures from the website European Football Statistics show that, on average, Super League attendances have plummeted from a recent peak of around 7,600 in 2008-09 to around 3,100 for the season just completed.

Greek Football decline

One big reason for the decline is the fall from grace of one of Greece’s top sides, AEK Athens. In a parallel to the nations’ economic situation AEK were brought low by some questionable financial management, reportedly owing some 170 million Euros in taxes. Forced to sell off a large part of their first-team just to gain a licence to compete in the top flight at the start of the 2012-13 season the stay of execution was only a temporary one and AEK finished the season in second to last position.

Declaring bankruptcy the club elected to start afresh in the third tier. AEK have since rallied and, claiming the second-tier title, have just achieved promotion back to the Super League. Off-the-field the club are also advancing with plans for a new 32–34,000 capacity ground the Agia Sophia.

While the re-appearance of the well-supported AEK in the top flight is likely to prove a boost to the Super League’s attendance stats the deeper structural problems afflicting Greek clubs seem unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. This season alone has seen one club, Niki Volou, relegated from the Super League by the league’s disciplinary committee when, failing to pay its players, the club were unable to complete their final five matches while another Super League club, OFI Crete, who reportedly lost a total of 21 players due to the clubs failure to pay them, clung on to survival – at least in the short-term – by using youth players to shore up their side.

The fortunes of the national team are similarly looking bleak. The side are currently ranked 25th in the World by FIFA, having slid from 11th in 2012, and are currently lying bottom of their Euro 2016 qualifying group. With just two points from six games Greece sit two places below the Faroe Islands to whom they suffered a humiliating 1-0 home defeat in November.

Both the national side and club sides will be hoping that a resolution to the country’s economic problems can be reached, as it is only then that Greek football can begin the process of attempting to return to the heights of just a few years ago.

Project Future Football: An Update

15 Jun

A big thank you to everyone who has already submitted an article for Project future Football; The topics are as wide ranging as I’d hoped, and the writing is brilliant. I cannot say enough just how much I appreciate your help.

I’ve decided that to give more people a chance to contribute that I’ll be keeping the door open for contributions until mid-September. I’ve also decided to loosen some of the themes so writing can be about any point in the future. The anthology will then be launched mid-October, in time for the Christmas period.

To take part all you need to do is write an article on football in the future. this could be factual, fiction, or just a list of predictions and send this to row.z.football@gmail.com

If you’d like to know more about Project Future Football, including details of the charity this is in aid of, please see the details here.

Thanks

Neil

Four years from a super-league?

12 Jun

We are just four years from seeing a breakaway European Super League, or at least that’s according to Arsene Wenger’s prediction made back in 2009. Wenger is of course just one of many over the years, in 2013 Glatasary chairman Unal Aysal predicted a European league  within five years, revealing that talks had been underway among some clubs around creating a closed-shop competition involving 20 of the continents top teams. Such dreams, or – depending on your point of view – nightmares of a super league have persisted for years, but are we really just a few seasons away from a revolutionary change in European football?

For some the evolution over the past twenty years of the European Cup from simple knockout tournament involving various national champions to what is now a de-facto prototype for a super-league in the ‘Champions League’, provides proof of an inexorable slide towards the side-lining of domestic championships. Moreover there is a compelling economic logic behind the assertion that having Europe’s elite clubs meeting on a regular basis will result in better football and that this will have in turn have a greater appeal to TV audiences in Europe and beyond leading to the few lucky clubs who find themselves on the inside reaping huge broadcasting revenues.

The prospect of a super league raises many questions; who to include (and as importantly who to exclude), how many teams for each country, what selection criteria will be used, how will promotion and relegation be handled, or will it be a closed-shop, and so on. All these are big questions, though none would be enough to stop a super league in its tracks.

Instead there is another reason why we are, at the present time, further away from a European Super League than when Wenger made his prediction several years ago.

This reason is the phenomenal success of the English Premier League in generating huge amounts of revenue through broadcasting. The domestic live-broadcast rights to this tournament over three years from 2016 were purchased for over £5 billion. This does not include rights to screen highlights, valued at around £200 million, or overseas rights which will be auctioned later this year. In terms of these overseas rights it is widely expected that the amount raised will exceed the current deal of over £2 billion.

For Premier League clubs the impact of the long-term rise in broadcasting on their revenue streams has been enormous; Deloitte observed in the 2015 edition of their annual Money League publication that Premier League clubs currently make up fourteen of the of the top thirty income generating clubs globally – and that’s not even accounting for the record-breaking deal which has just been concluded.

The sums on offer for European-level Football, although growing, seem small in comparison.  In the UK BT’s winning bid, for three years from 2015-16, came in at £299 million per season for a package which includes live rights to all Champions League and Europa League games. This is still some way from being enough to tempt, in particular, English clubs away from domestic competition; Certainly their indifferent approach to the Europa League demonstrates what happens when the money on offer doesn’t match up to the returns from domestic football.

Besides, domestic leagues such as the Premier League have the benefit of having a proven track-record in attracting paying television viewers. Broadcasters pay astronomical sums as they know, or take a good guess, that they can recoup this investment, and a little more besides. As we have seen though the consequences of getting it wrong, in terms of over-paying for rights, has proved ruinous to broadcasters and clubs alike. Backing a super league is therefore a huge risk for both broadcasters and clubs and one which, for now, they seem unlikely to take.

Broadcasting Blues: The challenges of getting clubs on TV in the Premier League’s overseas markets

19 May

With the announcement earlier this year that the domestic rights for the Premier League had been sold for over £5 billion for a three-year cycle there will be few who would bet against the announcement that the bidding for the 2016-19 cycle of overseas Premier League television rights will similarly result in a big increase in revenue. Respected blogger The Swiss Ramble puts in an estimate that this will rise from a current figure of around £2.2 billion to £2.9 billion – whilst pointing out that others have predicted an even bigger rise.

The successes in marketing the Premier League product however, can be in sharp contrast to the experience of clubs in the territories where the games are broadcast. One such place is New Zealand where the challenge continues to be getting broadcasters even interested in indigenous football.

While Wellington Phoenix, who compete in Australia’s A-league, do enjoy some screen time they are very much the exception – and even they have faced criticism from some quarters about low viewing figures compared. The country’s flagship club tournament, the ASB Premiership, a summer tournament made of franchise clubs, continues to be dogged by a lack of broadcaster interest which have led to real concerns about its future.

These concerns have necessitated a rethink of the league’s structure in a specific bid to broaden its televisual appeal. As Andy Martin New Zealand Football’s Chief Executive recently announced:

What we’re doing is looking at a competition that, at the moment, is not on television and is not as sustainable as it might be, so there’s a lot of dependency on trust funding and some of the clubs aren’t as financially secure as we might want them to be,

Working with clubs, regional federations, various experts and the broadcaster Sky plans are currently in the development stage with details likely to be unveiled later in the year. Periodic format changes have however, been something of a hallmark of football in New Zealand and the current format is itself barely a decade old.

Familiar observers may question whether another change will really achieve the desired change. It is also likely to do little for the games winter clubs who make up the backbone of grass-roots football in the country. It is these clubs who contest the Chatham Cup. First played in 1923 the cup is New Zealand’s oldest tournament, but despite being described – in terms not unlike those used to talk about the FA Cup – as a ‘national institution’ even the final itself can go without being screened. In 2013 the game appeared only on local television network Canterbury Television, and even then was not live while in 2014, for the final between Central United and Cashmere Technical, New Zealand Football took matters into their own hands and carried out a pilot in streaming the game live on the internet.

Whether this, or the impending restructure of the ASB Premiership, offers any hope for the future in terms of getting New Zealand’s football clubs on, at the very least, domestic television screens is an open question. In a country with a population of just over 4.5 million and where local football must compete with not just Rugby, but the English Premier League for people’s affections and attention the challenge is a formidable one.

It is of course difficult to say just what the overall impact of the Premier League is on the domestic game in places such as New Zealand and whether this is damaging, or even perhaps beneficial. As the amount of revenue the Premiership generates from overseas broadcast rights grow however, questions need to be asked about what the league’s wider grass-roots responsibilities are in the all the places where it generates revenue.

Player Autobiographies – an analysis of what’s on the shelves

15 May

Recently I carried out an experiment. On a day trip to the lovely city of Chichester I visited the local Waterstone’s and headed straight for the football section; The aim was to jot down all the football autobiographies on sale and then do some analysis. In total there were 16 different titles – these are the results:

Player Biographies

The biggest single characteristic the group shared was top flight experience, either as a player, or manager. The sole representative from outside the top flight was Ben Smith with an autobiography titled Journeyman: One man’s odyssey through the lower leagues of English football. In this case the lack of a top-flight career is the unique selling point of the book. This is very much in the vein of books like Garry Nelson’s Left Foot Forward: A Year in the Life of a Journeyman Footballer, published back in 1996. 

The second most common characteristic among authors is that three quarters have retired from playing. There is a good reason for this; An autobiography written mid-career makes for a dull read; it lacks the distance necessary for proper reflection and the author isn’t going to want to damage their career prospects by settling scores, or by revealing their love of wild partying and addiction to gambling. As Joyce Woolridge recalled in an article on player autobiographies for When Saturday Comes Stanley Matthews dad had once remarked “What folk will bother to sit down and read the comings and goings of a lad of 23? When you have really lived and have a story worth telling that may benefit the community, then by all means get down to the task of writing your story.”

69% of the authors had a British, or Irish nationality. The exceptions were, Sven Goran Ericcson, Dennis Bergkamp, Sergio Aguero, Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It will be interesting to see whether this changes as the number of foreign players in the Premier League has grown. In part the explanation for the low number of autobiographies by foreign players is that as most authors put pen to paper (or rather speak into a ghost-writers dictaphone) after retirement (see above), but even allowing for a time lag, this number seems low. Similarly there have traditionally been very few autobiographies translated into English from players who have had their entire career abroad, even very notable ones – certainly you’re not likely to see Oliver Khan’s Ich. Erfolg kommt von innen (translation; I. Success comes from within) appearing in Waterstones anytime soon.

The majority of authors were also full-internationals – 69%. This is because autobiographies only tend to get written by top players – and these invariably have graced the international stage at some stage in their career. Among those without international honours was Sven Goran Eriksson who was of course an international manager and Sir Alex Fergusson who although not gaining a full cap did play a number of games for a Scotland XI on a tour.

Finally 31% of authors had a connection to Manchester United. Although this is low compared to the other figures when it is considered that Manchester United are simply one of 20 top flight clubs it is possible to see how disproportionate this actually is. Undoubtedly much of this stems from Manchester United’s dominance in the 1990s when every other person in my school appeared to support Man U. The economics behind this is, of course, that players associated with better supported teams will be more likely to see their autobiography on Waterstones shelves as fans like to read about players who have been at their club, either through affection for that player, or for a glimpse behind the scenes that it may offer.

The list of ‘authors’

Trevor Brooking

Alex Ferguson

Dennis Bergkamp

Paul Lake

Andrea Pirlo

Stephen Gerrard

Sven Goran Eriksson

Ryan Giggs

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Gary Neville

Vinnie Jones

Paul McGrath

Roy Keane

Ben Smith

Alan Stubbs

Sergio Aguero

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